Six skinheads will face new trials on charges they promoted hatred against Roma (Gypsies) after the Supreme Court of Canada overturned lower court decisions that had acquitted them.
In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the trial judge had focused too narrowly on a single issue - whether Roma and Gypsies were the same identifiable group - while not considering all the evidence before the court.
"It is incumbent upon the trial judge to look at the totality of the evidence and draw appropriate inferences to determine whether the [six defendants] intended to target 'any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion or ethnic origin,' in this case, the Roma people," the court wrote.
The High Court also stated the trial judge could have taken "judicial notice" of the interchangeability of the terms Roma and Gypsy by accepting a standard dictionary definition.
At trial, Judge Russell Otter accepted a defence contention that the Crown had failed to prove its case that the defendants promoted hatred against Roma. Evidence at trial, the judge stated, specified only Gypsies and the Crown failed to prove the two groups were one in the same.
The charges arose out of an Aug. 26, 1997, demonstration by about 25 people outside the Lido Motel in Scarborough, Ont., where Roma refugee claimants were being temporarily housed. The demonstrators, described by the High Court as wearing "typical skinhead accoutrements," carried placards saying, "Honk if you hate Gypsies," "Canada is not a trash can," and "You're a cancer to Canada."
In addition, the protesters chanted "Gypsies out," and "white power." Some gave the Nazi salute while Nazi and Confederate flags were displayed.
The Supreme Court said, "The ethnic flavour of the demonstration, the fact it was situated outside a motel housing refugee claimants who were at times described by the witnesses as Roma, and the fact that Roma people are a group historically persecuted by the Nazis while the Nazi theme was apparent at the demonstration were all factors to consider, in addition to the actual words used, in determining whether Roma were the target of hate speech."
Ron Lee, chair of the Roma Community Centre of Toronto, applauded the Supreme Court decision for overturning an "unjustified" lower court ruling. "The original decision was based purely on semantic juggling," he said.
"If these people could get away with it by playing with words& the message to others is that there's no problem here, a judge will assume it's a prank like a panty raid."
Joel Richler, chair of the Ontario region of Canadian Jewish Congress, said, "We felt very strongly...that a dramatic change was required in this case, and believe that the Crown will easily prove in a new trial that hate was a motivating factor for the defendants."
Congress CEO Bernie Farber said the Supreme Court handed down "a common sense judgment that was a long time coming to right a wrong."
David Matas, senior legal counsel for B'nai Brith Canada, said, "We are pleased the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with our basic premise that hate should never be dismissed on the basis of a mere technicality."
Congress and B'nai Brith Canada were both interveners in the appeal.